Emirates Airline’s opening-day presentation at the Dubai air show, a choreography of dignitaries and dollar signs paraded before a capacity media crowd, achieved its aim of capturing headlines – although arguably the most interesting aspect of its colossal Boeing widebody order was given just the briefest of mentions.

Its decision to revisit the 777-8, the ultra-long-haul passenger variant, as part of its order for 90 777Xs is undeniably curious.

This is not only because the -8 has been practically relegated to a freighter – the passenger version’s backlog was in single figures – but also because the Emirates deliveries are not scheduled until 2030. And this is all set in the context of Sir Tim Clark’s publicly-voiced pressure on Airbus to improve performance of the rival A350-1000.

Tim Clark

Source: BillyPix

Not shy, or retiring

Emirates had originally been a 777-8 customer, signing for 35 during the initial Gulf-carrier launch order spree for 777Xs a decade ago.

The aircraft was conceived as an ultra-long-range model capable of flying over 8,700nm (16,100km), and able to serve specific niche routes from the Gulf.

But enthusiasm for the aircraft has waned. Emirates slashed its backlog for the -8 during a 2019 fleet rejig, the same year in which Etihad Airways signalled a rethink of its own 777-8s. Boeing unsuccessfully pitched the 777-8 against the A350-1000 for Qantas’s Project Sunrise.

Clark told a Dubai air show roundtable that Boeing appeared to have been “all over the shop” with the -8, adding that the carrier thought this was “probably not a good place to be”.

Once Boeing “quietly got on with the freighter” the -8 started re-emerging as a potential candidate, he says, and – with the 777-8F’s structural weight reduced and the passenger variant stretched for commonality – the -8 will “hit the sweet spot”.

“I think that caught them short a little bit, because they really decided the 777-8 was a freighter in perpetuity… and nobody else was going to be interested,” he says. “And probably, as a result of what we’re doing, others will follow.”

Perhaps. Airframers tend not to follow the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy, and even the backing of mighty Emirates is no guarantee of programme longevity. Boeing insists it is committed to the 777-8 but, in the background, it knows where the economic tipping-point lies for its development.

All these uncertainties, and the fluidity with which Emirates’ has previously reshuffled multi-billion-dollar orders, might reasonably provoke a degree of scepticism over the 777-8’s prospects, especially if the airline finds it can fill the niche routes adequately with other types.

Seven years is a long time horizon. Even Clark might have convinced himself to retire by then.